What Can Federal Policy Do?

Rick has a good post about an event he hosted on Monday to discuss the history of federal intervention in schooling:

There seemed to be a shared sense that the feds can have enjoyed substantial success when it came to ensuring access for vulnerable populations (think IDEA), using cash to push states to adopt clear-cut policies (as with NCLB’s assessment requirements), using the bully pulpit to raise issues on the agenda, and promoting transparency and information … There was much more skepticism about the federal government’s ability to actually improve schools.

That sounds about right to me. When it comes to K-12 education, the feds have an outsized influence on the agenda relative to the proportion of money and energy that we spend at the federal level. That asymmetry lends itself well to aspirational goal setting, but doesn’t necessarily assure a clear path to improving schools. I’ve said this a few times, but you can’t legislate schools and people being better at their jobs. That said, the slowness of bureaucratic change almost necessitates the establishment of unreasonable goals. That’s the only way to get systems to move with urgency. Providing those systems and people with the tools to move in the right direction is an entirely different exercise.

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